Luigi Ferdinando Marsili

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Luigi Ferdinando Marsili


Italian Aristocrat, Scientist and Soldier

Marsili was an Italian aristocrat and soldier who was also a scientist with a wide range of interests from astronomy to geology. His contributions include writing a dissertation on marine biology as well as founding Academia delle Scienze dell'Instituto di Bologna or the Institute of Sciences and Arts.

Although Marsili was from a noble family, he did not complete his formal education. However, he did study informally with Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694), an Italian biologist, and other teachers to acquire basic knowledge of history, science, and mathematics.

As a young man in Rome, Marsili made powerful allies. Queen Christina of Sweden and Cardinal de Luca employed him with a diplomatic mission to Venice. It was the Queen to whom he would later dedicate his first work, and it was the cardinal who would later recommend him to Emperor Leopold I.

Marsili spent 22 years in the Emperor's army beginning in 1682. His role was that of an advisor on fortifications in Turkey as well as cartographer, engineer, and diplomat. He was second-in-command at his post when his service ended in dishonor due to his involvement in the surrender of the fortress of Briesach. After Marsili's discharge, upon his return to Bologna, the King of Spain restored his right to wear a sword. Marsili would then go on, in 1708, to head the papal army during the War of the Spanish Succession.

It was not until retirement that his dedication to science truly began. However, even during his time in the military, Marsili pursued his scientific interests. He made astronomical observations, studied rivers, and even collected specimens of fossils and indigenous fauna.

In 1712, he presented his collection to the Senate of Bologna, where Accademia delle Scienze dell'Instituto di Bologna was founded. Although the Senate supported Marsili's proposal for the new institute, it did not come up with the necessary capital to back his idea. Discouraged by the lack of support, he came very close to leaving Bologna with his collection. However, the Senate encouraged him to stay, which he did. Marsili found funding from the pope instead and the institute was born. This "Institute of Sciences and Arts" wasn't formally opened until 1715. Six professors were employed to head the different divisions.

Under Marsili's leadership, the institute became a center of scientific research, focusing mainly on natural history exploration around Bologna. The institute flourished and eventually absorbed Academia degli Inquieti. Marsili's dedication to his creation was so strong, he bequeathed his collection and even his home to the city.

In 1725, Marsili wrote Histoire physique de la mer, the world's first dissertation on oceanography. It was published by the Dutch East India Company. This influential work examined every imaginable aspect of the sea from geological formations to biological phenomena. Marsili explored the formation of basins as well as indigenous plants and fish. He dedicated the work to the Academie Royale.

Marsili also wrote Danubius Pannonico-mysicus, observationibus in 1726. This work explored one of Europe's greatest rivers and its surroundings. He made use of his military training as a cartographer here. This work includes 20 maps. Additional works are Osservanzioni interne al Bosforo Tracio (Rome, 1681) and L'Etat militaire de l'empire ottoman (Amsterdam, 1732).

Aside from his work as a scientist, Marsili was also a member of several scientific societies, including his induction into the Académie des Sciences in 1715. In 1722, upon being made a member of the Royal Society of London, Marsili was honored with a personal introduction by Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who praised him as a famous scientist and founder of the Academy of Bologna.